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Reviewed by:
  • The Women of Homer
  • Jeffrey M. Perl (bio)
Oscar Wilde, The Women of Homer, 2nd impression with corrections, ed. Thomas Wright and Donald Mead (London: Oscar Wilde Society, 2011), 103 pp.

As Stephen Greenblatt reminds us in his latest book, Swerve, the backward-looking humanist project—carried on by archivists, librarians, archaeologists, annotators, translators, editors, and scholarly publishers—was a revolutionary enterprise. Rediscovering a lost text, object, or monument of antiquity, if the content were a surprise, could be like finding a new world. David Quint, in a review of Swerve in the New Republic, observes that, in focusing on Lucretius and his reception during the Renaissance, Greenblatt stays well within "his comfort zone," by which presumably Quint means to say that the humanist project was not over by 1650 or even 1750. Erwin Panofsky indeed argued that "the Renaissance was permanent," but that sentence, however potent, has not been seminal. The revolutionary archivists, librarians, annotators, translators, editors, and [End Page 356] scholarly publishers are still working at the humanist project, yet now with little, if any, sense of directly participating in it.

The Warburg Library (to renew a recent discussion in this journal) has only a small collection of material on the obsession with classical antiquity as manifest in the eighteenth through twenty-first centuries, even though Warburg himself, with his colleagues and successors, comprises evidence, on the premises, that the obsession continues to flourish. The problem, I suppose, is the idea, an antique in itself, that Classicism was done in by Romanticism. Whereas Romanticism was an intense renewal of the project of classical humanism—an upshot of, among other processes, the discovery and absorption of Longinus's On Sublimity—"Romanticism," as its first theorist said, "opens up a perspective on an infinitely increasing Classicism." The image, Friedrich Schlegel's, is of a pair of French doors opening onto a terrace overlooking the classics, and we may imagine that the doors had been closed, perhaps for centuries, on a site viewable only through glass and dusty blinds. When bearing that figure or gesture in mind, Romanticism becomes interpretable as a latter-day renascence. Recall that T. S. Eliot, who termed himself "classicist in literature," assessed the critical theory of Romanticism as more authentically classical than that of the English Augustans. "In the matter of mimesis," Eliot held, Wordsworth was "more deeply Aristotelian than some who have aimed at following Aristotle more closely."

Oscar Wilde, the most original, not to say revolutionary, figure in anglo-phone writing of the later nineteenth century, held degrees in classics, and his earliest prose work, apart from his letters, was an incisive 8,500 words on Homer (plus the tragedians and Isocrates). Written in 1876 during a summer's break from Oxford, The Women of Homer began apparently as a review of J. A. Symonds's Studies of the Greek Poets, volume 2 (Wilde's copy of Symonds is heavily annotated). Though not published in Joyce's lifetime (nor even in Richard Ellmann's), Wilde's Women reads as if it were the missing link between Ireland and Greece en route to Ulysses. The tone of Wilde's text, as its editors observe, is so often "schoolmasterly and condescending" that one is inclined to agree with Iain Ross that it may have been intended for use at a women's college (or even, I would hazard, a girls' school). But this suggestion is less interesting bibliographically (since it cannot be proven) than it is psychologically. For if intended for an audience of Victorian girls the age of Nausicaa, the essay is legible as a flirtation. It speaks immediately of Nausicaa as "white, pure and lovely as the boy Ion," and for a good while in Mr. Wilde's class the girls would hear of a "handsome, tall stranger," naked, on a pristine beach and the forthright approach of a virgin princess to rescue, bathe, and dress him. Later, as an anticlimax, they would learn that for a play based on this romantic material, Sophocles, "being very beautiful acted himself the part of Nausicaa and was much admired for the grace which he displayed in the game of ball." [End Page 357]



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